Meet Mohan Trivedi!
Mohan Trivedi is a Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the University of California, San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. At UC San Diego he serves as the founding director of the Laboratory for Intelligent and Safe Automobiles (LISA) and the Computer Vision and Robotics Research (CVRR) Laboratory. He has enjoyed a four-decade-long academic career dedicated to engineering research and education. Professor Trivedi’s efforts have influenced development of novel intelligent systems for applications in robotics, intelligent transportation, active safety of vehicles, homeland security, and assistive technologies. He has mentored over 30 doctoral, 10 postdoctoral, 75 master’s scholars and a large number of undergraduates. Dr. Trivedi serves as a consultant to industry and government agencies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including major auto manufacturers. He has published over 500 papers and over a dozen books, edited volumes and video proceedings. For his contributions Professor Trivedi has earned a number of awards, including the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society (ITSS) Outstanding Research Award, IEEE Computer Society Meritorious Service, and Technical Activities Pioneer awards, and Utah State University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. He is a Fellow of IEEE and two other major international professional societies, and has served on the editorial boards of several prominent technical journals and on the Board of Governors of the IEEE ITSS and the IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Societies. Dr. Trivedi was born and raised in Wardha, a small town in central India, where his physician father (with degrees in Medicine from the University of Vienna and London) had settled to serve village communities under personal mentoring of Mahatma Gandhi. Young Mohan Trivedi completed his undergraduate engineering studies at India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences and pursued graduate studies at Utah State University, earning a Ph.D. in 1979.
1. Why did you choose to study the engineering field?
It must be a combination of reasons. I did enjoy learning Physics and Mathematics in school and I used to hear lots of wonderful stories about my grandfather who was a Professor of Engineering.
2. What do you love about engineering?
Almost everything! I think engineers are basically problem solvers. We like to look for problems in the real world and then start on a mission to find solutions by following a systematic process of conceptualization, analysis, design, implementation, and evaluation. I also enjoy doing experimental work to build systems and see them work in the real world. One of the great joys of teaching engineering is the ability to interact on a daily basis with bright students in the lab and in the classroom, and as my students come up with new approaches, there is usually a ‘Eureka!’ moment that I share with them. Engineering is also, in my experience, a team effort, and that brings great rewards, and our lab has become a training ground for my students to learn skills that will be critical for their futures, whether they go into industry or stay in academia.
3. How did you first get involved with “smart” vehicles? Share a project or inspiration with us please…
Our team was working on intelligent robotics since the mid-1980s, developing robots with multiple sensors to perform various tasks in complex environments. We worked on a range of very interesting projects like autonomous inspection and maintenance tasks in nuclear facilities, development of a cooperative robotic team for autonomous maintenance of high speed train tracks in Japan, and fully autonomous robotic systems for responding to emergencies on highways. Some of these projects had modules, especially those for perception and decision making, which would be important in many smart vehicles. A couple of automakers noticed these efforts and approached us to explore some of the novel features they wanted to implement in their vehicles. We started two projects in 2001. One was related to development of airbags for sensing the size and position of the occupants in the front seat, so that in the case of an accident, the airbag would be properly deployed in order to ensure optimum safety benefits. The second project involved developing a multiple camera-based system that can be used to observe traffic conditions around a vehicle and the state of the driver. These research studies triggered our search for systems to accurately and robustly detect and classify objects on the road as well as conditions inside the vehicles, so that accidents can be prevented.
4. Is there a particular application or industry that you think could benefit the most from smart vehicle advances in the future?
Advances in smart vehicles should make accident-free, congestion free, traveling possible. It also has direct relevance to a whole range of other sectors that will be increasingly enhanced because of advances in the same areas such as computer vision, pattern recognition, and machine learning that will gradually transition from automobiles to other products.
5. You received the 2013 Outstanding Research Award from the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Society – can you tell us a little about the work that inspired this honor?
I was honored to receive the Outstanding Research Award from the ITS Society for my lab’s contributions to the newly-emergent intelligent driver assistances systems area, which they dubbed as “pioneering.” I have been one of the leading proponents of an “holistic” approach to human-centered active safety systems, combining models for the driver, vehicle, and vehicle surround as well as the various activities associated with the complex task of safe driving. Our research in the Laboratory for Intelligent and Safe Automobiles (LISA) has brought new insights and algorithms for capturing the dynamic surround of the vehicle and the state, intent and activity patterns of drivers. In particular, we have published extensively on what we call the “Looking-in and Looking-out” (LiLo) framework introduced as far back as 2005. LiLo offers a systematic framework to correlate visual context cues from vehicle interior and exterior so that the system can learn and predict driver’s behavior and intentions. These ideas are influencing new initiatives and research programs in the field, including those pursued by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies. Our LiLo approach has already made a major impact on next-generation driver assistance systems under development by major automakers. Immediate examples include panoramic vision systems for parking assistance Lane Keeping Assist (in Germany and Japan), Lane and Merge Intent predication systems for Volkswagen and Audi, and “Holistic Looking-In and Looking-out” algorithms and systems for Toyota.
6. What challenges do we face in the area of smart vehicles? What’s the biggest obstacle at the moment?
Never take safety for granted. Think about inadvertent negative consequences of introduction of new technology. There is another subtle challenge posed by the our fascination with the prospect of fully autonomous vehicles. While it makes sense to explore the future of autonomous vehicles, it is also important to consider the role of humans in an autonomous vehicle and come up with a framework where humans and robots work as a team, each aware of the limits, abilities, and intents of the one another, to come up with a synergistic solution.
We can do so much more to improve safety by focusing on human-assisted smart vehicle systems. Widespread use of autonomous vehicles on global roads must be at least a generation away, and it would be unfortunate to divert resources away from important innovations that will save lives and may serve as a transitional stepping-stone to the autonomous vehicles that may one day be possible.
7. Whom do you admire and why?
Leonardo Da Vinci for his unbounded imagination, fantastic creativity and masterful execution of his artistic and engineering skills. On the spiritual and personal side, above all Gandhi-ji for his unflinching belief in human potentiality and the power of nonviolence, empathy for all, transformative leadership, and thinking outside the box.
8. How has the engineering field changed since you’ve started?
The speed at which our technological world is changing is indeed most impressive. I started engineering by learning a slide rule, doing research using punched cards and batch processing computers, and going to libraries at odd hours in the night to check out reference books, and waiting for weeks to get copies of research papers. How quickly (and most fortunately) such items and practices have been outdated. We are now in the age of instantaneous access to information and a universal knowledge base, and this is certainly not the end of innovations. Powerful machine perception, learning and intelligence algorithms, embedded complex systems, distributed-cloud computing, really big datasets, nanotechnology – all are promising explosive growth in our field. It is exciting to think about how our field will look 10, 20 or 50 years from now.
9. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the field?
Engineering is not about machines but primarily is about humans and their world. Engineers working as individuals and in teams have found solutions to problems which were considered unsolvable in the past. We have unlimited repository of curiosity, imagination, insights and skills to make a positive and unique impact on the world around us. Understanding the centrality of humans within the context of intelligent vehicles was a lesson that redefined my professional ambitious, and it’s a lesson I try to pass on to the students in my lab and in my classes.
10. What advice would you give to recent graduates interested in working in the “smart” arena?
First, I think it’s important to remember that advances in intelligent vehicles and transportation will not come from just one field. The smart arena fundamentally requires interdisciplinary research and teamwork, and experience in both areas will be essential for recent graduates who want to take their education and use what they learned in industry or academia. Secondly, the opportunities are endless. There is a lot of excitement in the intelligent systems field. For research-oriented students there are so many challenging problems to solve and for those interested in applications, there are countless exciting domains to work, from interactive games to assistive technology and medical robotics, from smart cars to smart highways and smart cities.
11. If you weren’t in the engineering field, what would you be doing?
Maybe I would be an historian or an astronomer! I enjoy learning from the past and am inspired by the infinite possibilities embedded in the universe.